The development of contemporary art in China is a result of intellectual, cultural, economic political and social factors. The growth and acceptance of contemporary art in China has not taken place overnight. Rather, it has taken decades of struggle for freedom, execution of artists, and manipulation of art associations by the communist government. However, the fruits of the struggles are worth the effort, if the current fame and reputation of China as a beacon of contemporary art is anything to go by.
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Politics and policy evolution and their effects on contemporary art in China
Many governments around the world practice preponderant influence on culture and religion. In China, the case was not different for many years. This hampered the growth and development of contemporary arts and even led to migration of many artists to countries considered liberal at the time like France, Britain, and United States of America. The opening up of China to works of contemporary art has taken many years with many political regimes contributing in various ways towards the attainment of this status.
In 1942, the Peoples’ Republic government showed its will to assert control over arts. Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Party of the time, made an expected announcement that, “…the arts should serve the people, especially the workers, peasants and soldiers” (Andrews 37). Andrews further argues that, “from 1949 to 1979, the communist party succeeded in eradicating most of the artistic styles and techniques it found politically repugnant” (1).
In 1949, Mao made another announcement, which seemed to correct the effects of his first announcement, albeit superficially. He called on all cultural producers to come up and share their work with the people as a means of educating the masses. This empowered many contemporary artists whom saw it as an avenue and opportunity for participating in the great revolution of the time.
The result was the formation of Artists Association led by experienced and established artist within their ranks. Later, it emerged that the association of artists served only the interest of the Communist Party leadership. Clear-cut evidence emerged when the first chair of the association, Jiang Feng, presented a report to the government on development and progress in contemporary art in China.
The report “praised the accomplishment of communist artists and presented concrete goals for remolding the non-Communist art world” (Andrews 37). It was clear that Jiang was not speaking his mind considering that some of the information he was disseminating contradicted what he had said three years ago.
The government manipulated the organization’s leadership, thereby interfering with its policies and ideologies, and ensuring that every decision made in the organization served its interest. The Communist government’s decision to call on cultural producers to share their work with the public was not for the good of the country’s art industry, but was to serve as a government’s tool for propaganda.
The period 1950s to 1960s was still marked by government’s manipulative tactics on contemporary art in China. Even though it attempted to promote peasant art works, its classification of the work hindered artists from venturing in other types of art works. During this period, the government employed many teachers of art and sent them to the remote villages and rural areas to teach art. However, they were restricted to teach only “good” works and to avoid the “harmful” works.
According to the government, good works constituted landscapes, still lives, and revolutionary art forms. Expressionist works, abstractions, and nudes were not only discouraged but also called for punishment (Lei & Qi 74). This period saw production of great works of art.
However, works of creative expressions diminished under the Communist government’s iron rule. Any government that promotes the work of art must do so by creating a favorable environment for expressionist work, since it is the primary mode of expressing a society’s grievances.
Major strides in Chinese art occurred in the period 1979 through to 1980s. It was during this period that the government approved the Star exhibitions of 1979-80. The approval was a public relations exercise because the government had predicted that the failure of the exhibition was inevitable. In the contrary, the exhibitions continued gaining popularity both locally and internationally.
Encouraged by the gaining popularity of their works and the disappointment of the government in view of the program’s success, independent artists’ grouped emerged and grew rapidly. Most works produced during this period were critical of the Communist governments’ Cultural Revolution. Jane McCartney on the features section of the times magazine, gives a scintillating account of what happen in China in the 1980s when the exhibitions were making inroads.
A sprinkling of foreigners added splashes of color to the rare gathering in a temporary art gallery. The atmosphere crackled with excitement. Public showings of contemporary art were rare. An air of derring-do infused the show. In hushed tones, art aficionados, painters and the odd diplomat discussed the question of the day. How would the Communist authorities respond to an exhibition that conformed neither to socialist realist norms nor to party propaganda guidelines? (Macartney 12-14).
From that period onwards, contemporary art gained ground in China. However, this free flow of art was interrupted in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square occupation. Artist who supported or took part in the occupation were weeded out and prosecuted. Many artists flew China for other nations in fear for their dear lives. This prosecution greatly affected the progress of art in China.
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The mush needed boost to contemporary art was yet to come in 1990s. Deng Xiaoping’s government on realizing the importance of trade encouraged its citizens to participate in foreign trade with other nations. Art works took a center stage as they became recognized in foreign nations thereby fetching large sums of money.
To sustain the economic growth of the country, the government realized it was time to promote instead of trifle the works of art for they had become important foreign earners. McCartney explains this by saying, “It was becoming clear to the communist authorities that Chinese art had gained international fame and also represented big money” (Macartney 16).
After the declaration of the open door policy by the Communist Party, artists in China had freedom to interact and share ideas with other artists from other western countries. Such an opportunity had never existed before and was a great step in upgrading the level of contemporary art in China.
The interaction created curiosity among local Chinese artists, who wanted to compare and relate works done by other artists in different regions. Even though there was consideration of all art works from different parts of the world, European products presented the much-needed challenge.
In fact, by creating the little window for interaction, the communist government succeeded in rallying artists against its control measures, as they demanded more space. During this period, artists criticized the government through their works in artistic language that was complicated for its leadership to comprehend.
The freedom currently enjoyed by Chinese artist is hard earned. The current governments have promoted art works in many ways including, arranging for trainings for artists, protection of artists’ interests, non-interference in Artists Association activities, making of legislation that promote art, and carrying out promotion activities in foreign markets.
The return is marvelous. Many art works from China have graced the international platform and exhibition halls, artwork earnings’ contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased, and many people, artists, sculptures, and performers earn their daily living in the industry.
General Information on Art Zone 798
The now famous district 798 is in the North East of Central Beijing China. It is located in the Dashanzi area, and is famed for Factory 798 and other state-owned factories. Factory 798 originally produced electronics.
The current image of District 798 is a result of a 2002 initiative by artists and cultural organizations. These cultural organizations and artists divided the land that once housed the factories into small pieces among themselves, rented them out, and furbished them to meet their new needs of art galleries, art studios, restaurants, and design companies.
The district “…went through a change in form and appearance that exalts…” bringing together great contemporary works of art and unique architecture (Huang 34). In fact, the district’s uplift has set it out as a leading global tourist attraction for both domestic and foreign markets in the same stride.
Historical background of Art Zone 798
The history of Art Zone 798 can be traced back to industrialization of new China. The current location of Beijing 798 Art Zone initially housed China Wireless factory. Two other companies were established in this area around the same period too, factories no. 774 and 738.
The three companies contributed significantly to the economic growth of China at the time, especially by producing leading electronics products. The efficiency of the company was further enhanced by employing new technology from Germany. Beijing 798 Art Zone company buildings were of high standards of quality.
In December 2000, the Chinese government incorporated six companies that were working around Beijing 798 Art Zone (Huang & Cui 134). The Sevenstar’s group having moved out there operations elsewhere chose to rent out their old stores to earn little money instead of living the extra space lagging.
The first beneficiary of this contingency plan was Robert, a Chinese Art web station director at the time. Robert rented a 120 square meters Muslim canteen in the site. The cheap rent and vast space available in the yard attracted more and more people who later joined Robert in the site.
Interestingly, most of this people were also in the art industry! Those who joined the area who were not in one way or another involved in art, came to provide subsidiary services such as hotels, restaurants, bars and grocery shops to the workers. It is also argued that the architectural style of some of the buildings in the factory could have attracted the artists to art Zone 798 (Huang 7).
The rise of district 798
From just one shop, Beijing’s Art Zone 798 has grown to be a one of the most dominant civilization and exhibition centers for contemporary art in the world. In fact, any artist who has not exhibited his or her work at Art Zone 798 in China has nothing to be proud of at all (Huang & Cui 43).
Art Zone 798 is now among the most written about art exhibition centers in the modern world. Nearly all fashion magazines and travel guides on China mention if not detail Art Zone 798. The popularity and reputation of Art Zone 798 is no longer a Chinese affair, but an international one. Slowly and steadily, Art Zone 798 is developing a cultural phenomenon to reckon with in the world of contemporary art.
The People’s Communist party leadership, in creating room for contemporary works of art, consequently encouraged the growth and establishment of Art Zone 798. The artist who fled the country at the high of execution found their way back to China bringing with them diverse knowledge acquired from different parts of the world. Additionally, Chinese’ belief in unity of direction and working together aided the growth and development of Art Zone 798.
Art Zone 798 has placed Beijing in the map of the world as one the most iconic centers for contemporary art. The center’s occupants include artists most of whom having their workshops in the region, while a few work from other locations and transfer their work to the center, architects who bring new designs to the market almost in a daily basis, art professional, curators and critics.
With the ever-increasing demand for Art Zone 798 works, many international businesses have established exhibition and purchasing centers in the region.
The most recent threat to Art Zone 798 came in 2004. The area was to be demolished to create space for ultra modern business buildings. However, this plan failed as the artists operating in the area launched massive campaigns against the move led by a delegate to the People’s Congress who was also an artist.
They argued that historic places like heritages and Art Zone 798 should be kept. On the other hand, experts argued that Beijing did not need so many art zones and that some had to be demolished to create room for urban expansion.
What officials did not take in to consideration, was the growth of income generated by Art Zone 798 and the continued increase in number of tourists visiting the area. Art Zone 798 is also facing the challenge of space. The area, which was once spacious, has now become small due to increased number of businesses and people operating in the area.
Currently, artists who exhibit at Art Zone 798 attain a status of legitimacy in the world platform. Their work gain international recognition due to universally acclaimed reputation of Art Zone 798.
Notable exhibitions at Art Zone 798
From 2003, there have been many notable exhibitions at Art Zone 798. In March of 2004, Art Zone 798 held the “Trans-border Language” International Art Conference. The “Blue Sky Exposure” was also held at the Art Zone 798 in the same year. Others include, Reconstruction 798, Temporary Space, and Operation Ink Freedom, which attracted over 5,000 attendants. The years that followed show even organization of more exhibitions attracting more and more individuals.
In September 2004, the first work directly attacking the history of china was exhibited. The “Left Hand-Right Hand” exhibition displayed Sui’s sculpture of Mao’s right Hand engraved in an enormous concrete slab.
The greatest and most infamous display was yet to come in 2005 when He Yunchang, a performing artist, had himself fix and shut in a wooden box. Despite the little ventilation in the box, he stayed put for 24 hours! This was the advent of the shock performances, which are now characteristic of many exhibitions.
Challenges facing Art Zone 798
According to Huang & Cui, contemporary art in China is losing its attachment to the past traditions as well as the present life (53). Attempts by artists to link the current works of art to the present or past only magnifies the discourse.
This has led to criticism from a section of artists from other parts of the world who question the authenticity of the works. According these critics, no work of art should float in a vacuum like the Chinese current works. If such criticism continues, then it is feared that the current liking for Chinese contemporary art works may drop.
It is also surprising that China is still determined at establishing structural systems to control and regulate art activities. This is because its competitors in the contemporary art works have long abandoned such systems. The best environment for art works is one that is completely unregulated.
The communist government in its effort to improve art environment, has instead succeeded in limiting it. The government’s directives such as setting of art zones in specific places far from the society has led to limited interaction between art and the society. If the people are to appreciate and like the work of art, then a closer interaction is essential.
This interaction is not possible with the creation of the “creative zones” far from human settlements. In a country with great cultural diversity like China, penetration of art is hard no chance should be taken in bringing the people closer to works of art.
The big name that Art Zone 798 has earned has also come with its disadvantages. From its development as an abandoned factory site, cheap and spacious, Art Zone 798 has evolved to an excellent art center characterized with high rent rates and overpopulation. The increase in rent rates has seen many artists moving to other regions with relatively low rents. In fact, some creative gardens, which were once a beehive of activities, are now almost empty (Huang & Cui 107).
Finally yet importantly, the problem of lack of creativity also affects artists in Art Zone 798. The desire to make quick sales has led many artists to copy the works of others thereby limiting creativity. It is easy to find a single design stocked by almost all stores, which reduce clients’ choice and variety.
In conclusion, Chinese contemporary art work grace the highest levels of international market. The influx of art fairs to china, numerous high profile exhibitions, and government’s unfailing support through funding, sound policy formulation, and organization of training programs ascertain the importance of contemporary art to china today.
However, for the country to remain competitive in the world platform, the challenges highlighted must be addressed urgently. Demand for art works may be on the upward trend, but individuals mainly prefer unique works. With the current fall in creativity among Chinese artists, the once despised market likes Africa could overtake it in the world market.
Andrews, Julia Frances. Painters and politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949- 1979. California: University of California Press, 1994. Print.
Cheng Lei and Qi Zhu. Beijing 798 Now: Changing Art, Architecture and Society in China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2008. Print.
Huang, Rui. Beijing 798: reflections on art, architecture and society in China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2004. Print.
Macartney, Jane. “Let a thousand artists bloom.” The Times 3 Nov. 2007: 12-17. Print.
Wenya Huang and Cui Kaixuan. 798: Inside China’s Art Zone. South San Francisco, CA: Long River Press, 2010. Print.